The large quantity of guilt attached to sexuality in patriarchy is overwhelmingly placed upon the female, who is, culturally speaking, held to be the culpable or the more culpable party in nearly any sexual liaison, whatever the extenuating circumstances. A tendency toward the reification of the female makes her more often a sexual object than a person. This is particularly so when she is denied human rights through chattel status. Even where this has been partly amended the cumulative effect of religion and custom is still very powerful and has enormous psychological consequences. Woman is still denied sexual freedom and the biological control over her body through the cult of virginity, the double standard, the prescription against abortion, and in many places because contraception is physically or psychically unavailable to her.
One could hardly resist gazing back to this 1969 text of Kate Millet[i] after going through the much talked about video link of the Hefajat-e-Islam Chief, Ahmad Shafi.
And what did this elderly man have to say in his ‘sermon’ in front of a crowd?
- Men should not allow women to study after grade four-five. Women should receive minimum education to take care of husband’s property.
- Women should be homebound and be responsible for the husband’s chattel; they should not roam around ‘nakedly’.
- Women get involved in ‘zina’ while out for study or work, that’s why, their income does not carry ‘barkat’.
- Birth control should be denounced; even polygamy could be resorted to for enhancement of the Muslim Umma.
- Coexistence of men and women in public allures men and generates ‘zina’.
Kate Millet was not incorrect in her observation that women are viewed as ‘sexual object’ rather than person. It is quite astonishing that how each of her lines cited above fits into Shafi’s speech. Ironically, even in this twenty first century lives of women are essentially tied up between capitalism and patriarchy, while the former treats her as commodity, the latter holds her as a religious pawn.
If it wasn’t so, how could Mr. Shafi dare to pronounce those derogatory remarks in a land where women workers constitute 80 per cent of the RMG sector which virtually runs our economy?[ii] Why is he still free when we have Hawa Akhter Jui who had her hand chopped off by her former husband for continuing college against his will[iii] or Rumana Monzur, who being a university teacher had to loose her vision out of sheer possessiveness of her former husband?[iv] Would it be impossible to charge Mr. Shafi for defaming all the working force and academia or for inducement of violence against women?
Jui and Rumana were courageous enough to survive those gruesome incidents and they have uplifted our morale by their determination. But let us not forget Hena, the 14 year old rape victim who was held liable for ‘fornication’ by a ‘religious’ edict. While the perpetrator successfully escaped the whipping, Hena could not survive the lashes.[v] We have hundreds of Hena dying each year and may be thousands of perpetrators being trained and instigated by the sort of ‘Ilm’ spread by Mr. Shafi and like. For this we get a school teacher called a ‘whore’ in a public meeting for denying covering her head and the court has to declare afresh that women cannot be forced to veil.[vi] The court has expressed its concern over increasing social and religious vigilance on what women wear. And to our anguish here comes Mr. Shafi calling for restrictions on women’s’ movement and attire in a disparaging language. But moral policing of women or blaming them for ‘moral degradation’ is not new in Bangladesh. Even, Hefajat-e-Islam made a public admission that this is how religious sermons have been run in Bangladesh for decades, so why make a big fuss out of it?[vii]
This is aptly the question as a nation we should ask to ourselves, why had we allowed it this long? Try any video link of ‘waz’ from Bangladesh available in the social media, if you believe in equality of sexes and races you are bound to be aggrieved. Why do we allow such nuisance to be continued in name of religion? Why are these ‘sermons’ available in stores for purchase, why does not the law step in? Why did we decide not to bother even when many people avoid taking children to the ‘waz’ because they feel it’s more about verbal abuse of women rather than piousness? Why do we take these so lightly when we have alarming rate of violence against women including fatwa inflicted violence, infant mortality and maternal death? Why doesn’t the government take a bold stand despite having policies on prevention of polygamy, birth control, and equality of men and women?
These questions bear more relevance for the Hefajat was allowed and still being allowed to campaign for its thirteen points in the name of democracy which also includes demand for banning of women policy and ‘free mixing of male and female’.[viii] In face of huge uproar and protest from the media, civil society and rights activists Hefajat-e-Islam said the organization was not against women’s liberty or right to work or education, they are merely demanding segregation of men and women in public sphere:
There is nothing to prevent women from getting out of their homes, receiving education, and going to work wearing the hijab or dressing in a manner that is modest. For instance if there can be separate colleges and schools for women then it should not be a problem to create separate workplaces for them.[ix]
This explanation is an even more serious blow to the constitutional guarantee of equality of access to public life, education and work and freedom of expression irrespective of sexes.[x] Leave alone constitutionality, narrowing down the demand to practicality it becomes apparent that this demand is being pressed to repress and belittle woman. Would they go so far to demand separate roads, highways, bus service, air crafts, and armed forces for men and women? If they are so determined about segregation then why don’t they call out all Arabic teachers to restrain from tutoring of female students or prohibit male teachers in female madrassas?
And the rest has been said clearly all aloud by the Hefajat Chief and the organization on principle has given its approval to what the leader said: “Women should be homebound and be responsible for husband’s chattel”. Let us take the opportunity to remember that it is the same organization which not so long before has publicly beaten up a female journalist, Nadia Sharmin of ETV for being in a ‘male gathering’. Similarly the Finanical Express Reporter Arafat Ara in Dhaka and Mohona TV Chief Reporter Sumi Khan in Chittagong were obstructed by Hefajat activists. The organization leaders officially regretted attacks on journalists but they also requested female journalists not to cover its rally in Jessore.[xi]
What reaction did we get after all these had happened from our Parliament which has female Speaker, Prime Minister, Opposition Leader, several ministerial positions chaired by women and fifty reserved seats. Syeda Asifa Ashrafi Papia of BNP said all that Hefajat was preaching was aimed at “security of women” and Mr. Shafi is being maligned through a ‘media coup’.[xii] May be this is what is called ‘condemnation of the condemner’. A ray of hope ushered in when the Prime Minister condemned the Hefajat Chief, but it was really short lived as she could not break through the patriarchal spell and took resort to the same terminology in impugning the opposition leader. We have again witnessed narrow party interest and vote count getting the upper hand over public interest.
And for those who think Hefajat-e-Islam activists are some aliens residing in Quami Madrassas time has come to get a realty check. Our educational institutions, both private and public, are witnessing an increase of students bearing the idea that there should be seclusion of men and women in work and education. There is also a growing tendency among students to narrow down every aspect of public policy to religion. While giving lectures on Muslim Law I have had a lot of difficulties dealing with students who would bring a non-authentic translation of the Quran in class and argue over each and every statutory reform, even ones as harmless as marriage registration.[xiii] Needless to say the texts referred and reasons for arguments raised are utterly disrespectful to women.
But isn’t that something which is bound to happen, because the whole fabric is somehow disrespectful and has an enmity with women? Isn’t it unbelievable that sitting in a law faculty it is not possible to run a Google search with the keywords ‘sexual harassment’ because it includes the three lettered word ‘sex’? Isn’t it true that we advertise sanitary napkins 24/7 but we have to carry it wrapped when we buy it? Do we not have a popular song which goes “Chumki choleche eka pothe, songi hole dosh ki tate?” Do we not have TV commercials presenting women as commodity, always craving for luxuries of life, beauty without brain and always belittled by men, be it husband, father-in-law or fish seller? Don’t we have colleagues and teachers and classmates who always try to portray women to be less competent, fragile and timid? Yes, we live in a society where women face systemic discrimination. Here every women has to play an identity performance, the continuous struggle of proving her worth, for not being considered as a lesser being –‘woman’. A woman has more to prove, as a competent worker, a home maker, a loving wife and caring mother and more so to pass the social scrutiny of purity, which is tainted every now and then. No wonder, while Mr. Shafi adds fuel to the fire our administration sleeps on our rights. Even when the existing data shows that most of the fatwa inflicted violence has involvement of Quami Madrasa Students,[xiv] our very own government increases budget allocation for Madrassa education each year. Time and again, patriarchy and religion walk hand in hand. So, let us keep the way for uniform and mass education blocked, let us restrict free flow of information, let us groom the abusers and let us cry on the abused, let us allow Mr. Shafi to preach, let us keep the abuser of our women, Mr. Ghulam Azama alive…let us turn back the clock…indeed, we have turned back the clock far ago!
[i] Kate Millte, Sexual Politics, Granada Publishing (1969).
[ii] Refayet Ullah Mridha, BRAVO Bangladesh eyes $20b in New Year, The Daily Star, 1 January 2013, Online: <http://archive.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=263342>.
[iii] Anabarasan Ethirajan, Brave Recovery of Mutilated Bangladesh Woman, BBC News, Dhaka, 5 May 2012, Online: <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16796198>.
[iv] Rumana Monzur to Study Law, bdnews24.com, 11 July 2013
[v] Md. Asadullah Khan, Fatwa Culture: Challenge to the Justice System, The Daily Star, 12 February 2011 Online: <http://archive.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=173798>.
[vi] Advoctae Salauddin Dolon v Bangladesh (Writ Petition No. 4495 of 2009), Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, Online <http://www.blast.org.bd/issues/gender/250-4495of2009>.
[vii] Staff Correspondent, Shafi Sermons Being Maligned, bdnews24.com, 13 July 2013, Online: <http://bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2013/07/13/shafi-sermons-being-maligned>.
[viii] Point four and five of Hefajat-e-Islam’s Thirteen point demands.
[ix] Hefajat-e-Islam Explains the Thirteen Points Demands, Online: < http://bdinn.com/articles/hefazat-e-islam-explains-the-13-points-demands/>.
[x] Articles 17, 27, 28, 29 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 1972.
[xi] Jessore Rally: Hefajat asks female journos not to cover, The Daily Star, 25 April 2013, Online: <http://www.thedailystar.net/beta2/news/hefajat-asks-female-journos-not-to-cover/>.
[xiii] Just to avoid confusion, I have been working in a private university before joining University of Dhaka. And being associated with various academic activities drawing students from different universities the observations made here is an overall reflection on law students form different institutions.
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed, or the assumptions made within the analysis in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Crimes Strategy Forum (ICSF).